Putting “consulting” back into the business

Apr 01, 1993

Ask anyone who has risen to the top of a consulting engineering, A/E, or environmental consulting firm where are the greatest weaknesses in their staff, and they will almost always say it’s in their “soft” skills. Most principals feel that their staff is technically sound. But they know there’s more than design to the “design” business, as it is so often referred to. The design industry is also a consulting industry. And what’s most often lacking in our people are managerial, business development, interpersonal communications, and other “consultative” skills. Many of the engineers, architects, and other professional-technical experts that populate our firms have not fully embraced the concept that they must become “consulting engineers,” “consulting architects,” and so on, if they want to succeed. And that means developing a whole new set of skills and qualities that they don’t teach in school: The desire and ability to build relationships. You have to like people and like influencing people to be highly successful in this business. Not only is it okay to be friends with your clients— it’s essential. The ability to nurture those relationships over time. You have to be one of those people who stays in touch with people over time. You have to write, you have to call, and you have to make contacts when others may not do that for you. The ability to write clearly. This is a big problem for our industry. A disturbing amount of the written matter I see from A/E and environmental consulting firms is absolutely atrocious. Fortunately, anyone who can master structural engineering equations can learn to structure a decent sentence, assuming they want to— many don’t seem to care. I also believe that in order to write well, you have to read, and read something more than technical publications. At least read a good newspaper and stay informed on world events. Good oral communication skills. A lot of technical professionals think what you say is more important than how you say it. Don’t kid yourself. A consultant needs good articulation and enunciation, whether on the phone, around a conference table, or at a podium in front of an audience. You also need to know when to speak and when to shut up. Good listening skills. People don’t like to give negative feedback and they won’t always be completely honest with you. That includes your clients. You have to ask the right questions and pay attention to how people react, not just what they’re saying. And you need to take good notes while you’re listening— it’s incredible how many people can’t do this. Keen listening and note-taking skills are a big part of the make-up of a successful consultant. Knowing how to dress. You don’t have to look like you stepped off the pages of GQ, but you should look like what your client expects a professional to look like. And this expectation varies from client to client. A typical plant engineer would be glad to see you in a clean white short sleeve shirt with an inexpensive blue blazer. A high flying developer client might expect you to wear only natural fibers and all leather shoes. Don’t be a chameleon, but look the part that your client expects. Ability to solve the right problems for the client. This requires you develop a full understanding of what your clients’ organizations do. That’s the only way you can fully anticipate their needs and their reactions to your solutions. Too many people try to go by the book even when it’s not appropriate. There’s also too much talk among designers about “compromising” with the client. Every real-world solution involves compromises— and it may as well be with the guy who’s paying your bill. Confidence. Many otherwise competent consulting engineers, architects, or scientists fail because they lack the confidence and conviction necessary to convince the client to do what is in their best interests. Humility is an admirable quality, but too much of it will seriously limit your impact in this business. Willingness to embrace business as a way of life. We say it over and over. This is not a 40 hour per week business and never will be. It’s a 50 to 60 hour a week business, minimum. And that’s okay if your life is built around it, if your clients are your friends, and if you are following your true passion. You don’t have to sacrifice your family life. You do, however, need to get your family’s support by keeping them involved and enthusiastic about what you are doing. Those who throw themselves into their work will get better at it. And their employers and clients will recognize it, too. It’s time that we all stopped talking behind closed doors about what we want our people to be, and started carrying that message out to the troops with complete honesty. That’s the only way I know of to change employee attitudes, expectations, and behavior. Originally published 4/01/1993

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